Friday, July 27, 2018

Worth Mentioning - Throw 'Em in the Cracker Factory

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Killer kids, a crazy nanny, high-stakes card games, and a legendary creature.


Naomi Watts is one of my favorite actresses, and has been ever since the first movie she had a lead role in. A movie that came well before she was dancing with King Kong or breaking through with Mulholland Drive. It was this one, a direct-to-video Children of the Corn sequel that has no connection to the three films that preceded it... and which also happens to be my favorite of the Children of the Corn sequels.

Watts plays Grace Rhodes, a med student who comes back to her Nebraska hometown of Grand Island (which is a real town that's much larger than the Grand Island of this film appears to be - even though this was shot in the bigger cities of Austin, Texas and Los Angeles) because her agoraphobic mother June (Karen Black), who is plagued by nightmares involving creepy children, needs assistance. Grace has two younger siblings still living at home; James, a rebellious kid who collects serial killer trading cards and is played by Mark Salling, an actor who had a very disturbing future ahead of him, and Margaret (Jamie Renée Smith). We'll come to find out that  the character introduced as Grace's little sister is actually her daughter, given to her mother to raise because Grace was so young when Margaret was born.

June's nightmares prove to be premonitions, as there are soon very strange things going on with the children of Grand Island. When a drifter busts open a well in an abandoned barn, he inadvertently sets loose an evil being who has been trapped down there for decades - the evil spirit of a boy named Josiah (Brandon Kleyla). Josiah was abandoned as a baby by his young mother and raised by travelling preachers. Soon he began preaching himself, "the Amazing Boy Preacher" at tent revivals... but this boy preacher made the adult preachers so much money at these revivals that they couldn't allow him to grow up. They fed him mercury to stunt his growth, and when that poison didn't do the job they performed a black magic ritual. That did the trick. But when the public realized there were evil forces at work, they stopped going to the revivals. So the preachers abandoned Josiah like his mother did. Josiah got his revenge, killing the preachers with a scythe. After that, the townspeople burned Josiah alive and dumped his remains into that well.

Children of the Corn: The Gathering was the feature writing debut of both former Miramax executive Greg Spence and his co-writer Stephen Berger, and was Spence's feature directorial debut as well. Instead of just having the primary villain be another kid who worships the demonic corn god He Who Walks Behind the Rows (who isn't even mentioned in the finished film), Spence and Berger created their own villain here with his own specific, twisted back story. I think they did a great job, because Josiah is really creepy, and the scene in which his history is told by a couple old ladies is a chilling one.

After Josiah rises from that well, the children of Grand Island fall ill. They run high fevers and start tearing out their teeth that have fillings. It's clever that Spence and Berger made Grace a med student, as that allows her to take job that puts her right in the middle of this situation - working at the local clinic for old Doc Rob (William Windom), she has to deal with all these sick kids - James and Margaret included - and strange activity. Her best friend Mary Anne (Samaria Graham) is a school nurse, so she sees a lot of weirdness, too.


When the fever breaks, the children seem different. They take on different personalities, call themselves different names - the names of children who have died in this area in the past. For example, twin brothers start saying they're twin brothers who were killed by their fathr back when Doc Rob was a kid. Then these kids turn violent and start murdering the adults around them. It's a different approach to the "killer kid" concept of this franchise.

Josiah's back story reflects the story of Grace and Margaret - he was abandoned like Grace essentially abandoned Margaret. This sets our heroine up to go through some difficulty to prove that she can be a capable mother for the daughter she left behind. Margaret is the key to Josiah being able to take complete control of all the children. To save her daughter, Grace will have to destroy this supernatural evil, and luckily the back story also provides a weakness for Josiah: mercury. (It's explained that mercury is in fillings, so that's why the kids were pulling out their teeth.)

With the help of Donald Atkins (Brent Jennings), a man whose son has fallen under the spell of Josiah and whose wife was killed, Grace charges into that old barn for a climactic confrontation with Josiah, armed with shotgun shells that have been spiked with mercury.

I think Children of the Corn: The Gathering is a really good supernatural slasher that gets disregarded and overlooked because it fits into the middle of a franchise that, while I'm a fan of it, isn't one of the most beloved franchises out there. It drifts away from the He Who Walks Behind the Rows business, but it builds upon the foundations of the series in a way that I find to be quite interesting. The villain, the stages of the possession that baffle medical professionals, etc.

It's all carried on the shoulders of Watts, who makes Grace a smart, strong heroine - she might be a little underwritten, but her abilities still come through. It took several more years after this for Watts to start getting roles in more prestigious fare, but I was rooting for her from the first time I watched The Gathering and have been glad to see the success she has had since.

If you haven't seen The Gathering because you've written off the Children of the Corn movies, I would urge you to give this one a try. You might agree with me that it's a solid little horror movie with an intriguing story and an effectively dark atmosphere. If you don't like it, at least the end credits start rolling after just 79 minutes.


On a horror message board I used to frequent, New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye had achieved a sort of cult following - fans of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise had become fans of the producer through his cameos in the films, his appearances in "making of" documentaries, and the stories told about him in those documentaries. In 2008, Shaye stepped away from New Line Cinema, and for nearly a decade we didn't hear much about him.

Having formed a new company called Unique Features, Shaye began to make a bit of a resurgence in 2016, starting by producing the thriller When the Bough Breaks, which is the latest telling of a very familiar story.

Directed by Jon Cassar from a screenplay by Jack Olsen, When the Bough Breaks stars Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall as John and Laura Taylor, a married couple who desperately want to have a child but have suffered through multiple miscarriages. They decide to seek out a surrogate and end up choosing Anna Walsh (Jaz Sinclair) to carry their child. Since we know we're watching a thriller, we know this scenario is going to turn out terribly wrong, that Anna is going to turn out to be dangerously crazy in one way or another. Things go just as bad as you expect them to, and in his screenplay Olsen made sure viewers would get what they expect. Whether you think Anna is plotting with someone else to do unscrupulous things to get more money out of this surrogate situation than had been agreed upon or if you think she's going to become insanely infatuated with John, you're right. Both of those possibilities are in play within this movie.

When Anna starts behaving in a very inappropriate way toward him, John keeps her antics a secret because he doesn't want to ruin the experience of impending motherhood for Laura. Eventually, however, Anna goes so far off the deep end that there's no hiding what's going on, as things begin to descend into violence.

The story of When the Bough Breaks is very "been there, done that", but if you like this type of movie this is an entertaining and engaging variation on the familiar tale. It provides enough awkward situations, unintentional laughs, and violent acts to hold your attention for the duration. John is a likeable character, and newcomer Sinclair did a great job playing the off-balance Anna.

The movie certainly isn't anything special, but it's a lot better than its 12% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes might lead you to believe. It's harmless popcorn fun. You know what you're getting when you put it on, and it delivers what you want it to.

Robert Shaye's return got started in a serviceable manner.


I have watched the poker-heavy James Bond film Casino Royale a whole bunch of times. I have watched televised celebrity poker games. And back in 1998, I went to see the movie Rounders, which is all two guys who spend most of the movie either playing Texas Hold 'Em poker or watching other people play poker... Yet I still have no clue how to play poker myself. A quick study of card games I am not.

Matt Damon and Edward Norton had just had their major breakthroughs when director John Dahl cast them together in Rounders. Damon had Good Will Hunting, for which he (along with Ben Affleck) won a Best Screenplay Oscar, the year before this, and Norton had wowed audiences with his performance in the thriller Primal Fear two years prior. That pairing is why I went to see the film when it was released. Despite having no idea what the hell was going on when the characters were laying their cards out on the table, I still thought the movie was great.

Damon plays Mike McDermott, a law student who grew up playing poker but is trying to put those days behind him after losing $30,000 in a game hosted by Teddy KGB - a Russian character played by John Malkovich, who chews on the scenery, Oreos, and a hilarious thick accent. There are lines in this film that are unforgettable simply due to the way Malkovich delivers them, like "Mister son of a bitch" and "Pay that man his money."

Mike's life falls apart when his childhood buddy Worm (Norton) is released from prison and desperately sets out to win $25,000 to cover debts he's been owing since before he was sent away. While Damon's Mike is the nice, regular Joe sort of guy, Worm is someone that Norton can play perfectly, a cocky twerp who carries himself like he's much better and cooler than he actually is. With undying loyalty to his friend, Mike decides to help Worm try to win allthe money he needs.

If you're guessing that this means Mike will be going up against Teddy KGB again by the end of the movie, you'd be right.

There really isn't a whole lot to Rounders. Even when Mike's girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol) dumps him for getting back into poker and empties her stuff out of their apartment, it doesn't have much emotional impact. Still, it's interesting to watch Mike and Worm make their way through their dilemma and play their card games, even if you don't understand poker. The movie flows along at a good pace, and the characters and actors are worth seeing in action.

I'm slightly less enamored with Rounders now than I was twenty years ago, especially because it has an overabundance of voiceover - really, there's rarely a moment in the first 25 minutes when Mike's not yakking about something - but it holds up for the most part. It's a solid card game movie with a great cast. In addition to those cast members mentioned above, there are also roles filled by John Turturro, Famke Janssen, and Martin Landau.


For me, Scream of the Banshee was a cinematic event that was a long time coming: the second feature from Automaton Transfusion director Steven C. Miller. Soon after his micro budget zombie movie was released by Dimension in 2007, Miller started attaching himself to multiple high profile projects, some of which (like the comic book adaptation Area 52 and a remake of Motel Hell) were never to happen, and one (a remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night) he did end up making years later than expected. Miller caught my attention with his Automaton Transfusion success story, so I was keeping track of the development of his career, and had even talked to him on MySpace when he was preparing to pitch for the directing gig on a sequel to the '80s vampire film The Lost Boys. He didn't direct any Lost Boys movies, either. His second feature ended up being this "Syfy Presents" creature feature, which made its premiere on Syfy in 2011 - and I tuned in to catch that premiere.

Written by Anthony C. Ferrante, who used to write for Fangoria magazine, from a story he concocted with Jacob Hair, the film begins in Ireland in the year 1188, when a group of Templar knights confront a cloaked figure in the wilderness. There's some kind of vicious creature beneath this cloak and it puts up a bloody fight against the knights, but it ends up being defeated with the use of a device that severs and traps its head.

Move forward to present day, when that head-containing box is discovered hidden away at Santa Mira University in California. As Professor Isla Whelan (Lauren Holly) and some students evaluate the box to add it to the archives, they cause it to open - revealing the hideous monster head inside. The monster lets out an ear-splitting scream, the head spontaneously combusts... and now these folks have inadvertently set loose a banshee, "a creature whose scream warns of human death".

Having regained its full body, the supernatural creature immediately sets out to rack up a body count, while those who heard its scream feel its presence lurking around them, catch glimpses of a cloaked figure, have ear trouble, and have visions that prove to be disturbingly real - visions that can leave bruises. Realizing that hearing the scream has marked them for death, our protagonists seek the help of retired teacher Broderick Duncan, who discovered the box during an archaeological dig and now posts doom prophecy videos on the internet. Duncan is played by Lance Henriksen, who isn't a rare sight in this sort of movie, but he's always a welcome one.

Scream of the Banshee is a pretty run-of-the-mill monster movie, there's really nothing exceptional about it at all. The characters don't make any impression, even though the script tries to give Whelan more depth by giving her some family drama to work through on the side. Most of the scare and attack scenes don't feel inspired or effective, just obligatory. With that said, I'm still left with a much more positive impression of Banshee than I am for the usual Syfy production - this isn't a mess, it's just bland.

It helps that the banshee isn't a CGI monstrosity; there are actually some cool practical effects in here.

This isn't a major entry in Miller's filmography, he doesn't even mention it on his official website, but it's a serviceable movie that allowed him to continue his career after spinning his wheels in development hell for a few years.

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